How do you get a group of fidgety third-graders to settle down and pay attention to their teacher? New research reports one answer is to mimic what smart but stressed-out adults do to recharge and refocus: Spend some time in nature.
A carefully designed 10-week study found outdoor lessons "boost subsequent classroom engagement, and boost it a great deal," writes a research team led by Ming Kuo of the University of Illinois—Urbana-Champaign. "After a lesson in nature, teachers were able to teach for almost twice as long without having to interrupt instruction to redirect students' attention."
In the journal Frontiers in Psychology, Kuo and her colleagues note that, while many European nations have incorporated classes in nature into children's education, the idea has not been embraced in the United States. This may reflect "concern on the part of teachers that outdoor lessons will leave students keyed up and unable to concentrate," they write.
Their findings debunk that notion.
The study featured third-graders (ages nine and 10) at an environment-oriented magnet school in the Midwest. The kids were predominantly African American, and 87 percent qualified for a free or reduced-price lunch.
Two teachers—one keen on the idea of teaching in nature, the other somewhat skeptical—"each delivered 10 pairs of lessons over 10 different weeks." On five of the 10 weeks, the first lesson of the pair was taught at a grassy spot just outside the school, adjacent to some woods.
"For any given pair of lessons, both the treatment lesson (in nature) and its indoor counterpart were delivered by the same teacher to the same students, on the same topic, in the same week of the semester," the researchers write.
The students' engagement in the lesson taught immediately afterwards—which was always indoors—was measured in a variety of ways, including the teacher's perception; the judgment of an independent observer who examined photographs of the classroom; and how often the teacher needed to stop teaching to attend to a student's inappropriate behavior.
"Classroom engagement was significantly better after lessons in nature," the researchers report. On four out of five measures, children were more attentive if they had spent the previous 40-minute period outdoors.
Most striking was the reduction in "redirects," which are defined as "instances where a teacher interrupted the flow of instruction to redirect students' attention."
"Normally, these occur roughly once every 3.5 minutes of instruction" in a third-grade classroom, the researchers write. But after a less in nature, "teachers were able to teach for 6.5 minutes, on average, without interruption."
Kuo and her colleagues don't know precisely why exposure to nature settled the kids down, but they have some theories. Previous research has found "exposure to nature has immediate, beneficial after-effects on both attention and stress," they note. The five-minute-long walks to and from the outdoor learning area may have played a positive role.
It's also possible the kids were responding to rejuvenated instructors. "Perhaps teachers are able to teach in a more engaging way after a bit of walking, a bit of a breather, and a change of scenery," they speculate.
Whether the time outdoors refreshed the kids, teachers, or both, the positive results are pretty dramatic. They provide further evidence of the restorative powers of the natural world, and show they can be harnessed to achieve an important practical goal.